This week's Fact Friday comes to you from the Charlotte Historic Landmarks Association. Last week, as I read about Charles Ervin and the historic Ervin Building, I was blown away by how much I DIDN'T know about the impact his business made on the city I was born in...
The Ervin Construction Company
Ervin began his business building custom homes on lots people already owned, but he quickly switched to developing planned communities. Within the company’s first year, Ervin sold $2.5 million worth of houses; considering that there were a record number of housing permits pulled for that year, it is no wonder. He started with the development of Country Club Hills in 1950 and Eastway Park in 1952. Both developments sit to the east of downtown Charlotte, marking the rapid growth of the city outwards. In Eastway Park, Ervin built 200 houses by May of 1955, with plans to expand the development due to its success. His company provided all services for the development, including building the roads and sewers. This was a model he would repeat time and again, growing his company to be a one-stop-shop for new neighborhood developments.
In 1953, Ervin started Beechwood Acres, and the next year his company broke ground on Providence Park. They spread his reach even further throughout Charlotte, with Beechwood to the northwest of downtown and Providence Park to the south. 1955 saw the start of Markham Village, Longwood, and Oaklawn Park. At the time, housing developments were separated by race, and Oaklawn Park was Ervin’s first foray into building a housing development specifically for the African American community of Charlotte. A 1955 spread in The Charlotte Observer advertised his most recent housing developments and the company in general, touting Ervin as an example of the American Dream. He had grown his business from 15 employees in 1947 to 400 by 1955, with the company offices and warehouse at 3400 Rozzelles Ferry Road.
As one would expect with a housing boom, the population of Charlotte was growing from 1940 to 1970, and Charlotte was growing mainly in its suburbs and the city boundaries kept expanding as well. The new families moving to Charlotte appreciated the same qualities of suburban living that those in the early-twentieth century did: spacious, private living with plenty of green space. The Ervin Construction Company realized what drew families to the suburbs and marketed their houses to attract them. Following FHA standards of the time, Ervin designed his developments in primarily Traditional and Colonial Revival styles on curvilinear roads, eschewing the riskier Modernist designs that were also prevalent at the time. Even though his house designs were relatively modest and safe, for his office building Ervin did adopt the Modernist style.
By 1958 the company was listed as the South’s largest home builder and was even named in House and Home magazine as “perhaps the nation’s largest custom home builder.” Ervin had figured out the formula for building customizable homes for a relatively low cost. His model was so successful that it was estimated his company sold 600 custom homes in 1958, and about 80 percent of their houses were sold before completion. This allowed the homeowner to personalize many different aspects of the house. A “custom” home still generally followed a prescribed stock design set forth by the Ervin Company, a practice that rose during this time and is still widely used today. This allowed the homebuyer some choice, but kept costs relatively low. In 1959, an article advertising a new development by Ervin claimed the company had over 100 different floor plans, but also the option of personalized floor plans should the customer be more discerning (see newspaper ads at the end of this report for a few examples of Ervin built homes). Though Ervin’s houses’ floor plans were customizable, he also had his own guidelines for the most profitable floor plan for 1950s and 1960s families: three bedrooms, one and a half baths, and a family room (a living room was only necessary if the couple specified). Styles of houses ranged from “modern to colonial” and that each home plan was “the result of study and research and is advanced in livability and convenience.” Ervin Company houses cost a family between $8,000 and $50,000 at the time. Each development, though, kept a relatively tight range of housing prices creating a homogeneous appearance and neighborhood resident. Ervin designed more affluent neighborhoods such as Country Club Acres and Providence Park to lower-priced developments such as Beechwood Acres and Westerly Hills. To ensure that every customer was happy, the Ervin Company provided a gift for every new homeowner, and there was a special department within the company that would help with maintenance and repairs of the home even after the owners moved in.
Landscaping was included as a part of the Ervin Company experience, and in one development they even paid the homeowner’s share in safety sidewalks, matching the 50 percent paid by the city. Ervin built and expanded his company so that all aspects of home buying could be completed through the
Ervin Company. Floor plans could be adjusted in-house to suit any potential homebuyers’ wishes. By 1959, the company had its own financial department to help those potential buyers wishing to access G.I. and other loans. Ervin even opened a furniture retail store along Independence Boulevard, not far from his 1964 office building, to allow home-buyers the opportunity to purchase an interior design package along with their new home. He modeled his Hallmark Galleries after a furniture gallery opened by the Levitt and Sons on Long Island in New York. Part of Ervin’s success was based on identifying areas of Charlotte destined for future city expansion, and this technique paid off as Charlotte rapidly annexed new areas into the city during the 1960s.
Ervin’s interests reached beyond just basic home building. He was entranced by the futuristic schemes that pervaded American thought during the 1950s and 1960s. Space travel was on everyone’s mind, as was the uncertainty of the ongoing Cold War. Ervin was fascinated by the promise of tomorrow and eagerly followed new innovations in technology including city planning. In fact, he greatly admired the work of Walt Disney, who opened his first theme park in Anaheim, California in 1955. Sixty years on, opponents to Disney culture claim that the world of Walt Disney is a caricature of life as we will never know it. But at the time, Disney was a proponent of progress, of bringing people together, and creating a utopian society. He would eventually add the futuristic “Tomorrowland” to his Disneyland theme park and design exhibits for the 1964 New York’s World Fair that included the “Carousel of Progress” and “It’s a Small World”. Both exhibits were eventually added to Disney’s theme parks. Ervin was heavily influenced by Walt Disney and his desire to bring people together through his theme parks. Disney wrote a letter to Ervin in 1959 thanking him for a phone call they shared and encouraged him to continue with his plans for the future of Charlotte as Disney liked his “ambitions to showcase ingenuity and achievement there.”
Ervin’s ideals of homeownership for all and his business model of providing all services in house made him a millionaire by the age of 31 in 1955. A profile on Ervin in the Charlotte Observer described him as follows: “If Charles C. Ervin were shipwrecked on a desert island he undoubtedly would have it subdivided, landscaped and financed by the time his rescuers arrived.” His had gained attention in the Charlotte business world because of his success, which included selling nearly $12 million worth of homes in 1959. By 1960 he had built 5,000 homes in the Charlotte area, and in 1960 he had built one in three new homes in Charlotte; Ervin was the nation’s seventh largest homebuilder. He became a director of the Charlotte Chamber of Commerce the same year. Ervin’s success came not just from his own business acumen, but also from the ability to hire skilled people and allow them the space to complete their jobs. In the same profile on Ervin, an observer is quoted saying, “In listing his qualities I’d say one of his chief ones is his insight into human nature. He can distinguish between what is real and sham in people as well as property.” Ervin even created a competition amongst his 57 construction crews in 1961 to try and increase productivity and save the company money. His plan worked, and in August of 1961 he had more than $2.5 million worth of new houses under construction in Charlotte while increasing construction crew productivity up to 10 percent. In 1961, the company had 1,081 people on their payroll and the company had made more than $75 million in sales since the company was founded.
Ervin was building an empire, and many people were intrigued by the man behind one-third of the new homes built in Charlotte. Even though he had hired people who could easily run his company for him, he continued working 14-hour days six days a week and always bet on his homebuilding model of success. At home, he was married to Mary Frances Underdown, a “pretty piano player,” he met while in the Navy. They had four children: Frances, Suzanne, Charles Jr., and Milton. His father had been a Methodist reverend, but Ervin was not particularly religious himself. Ervin did sell land in his developments to churches and schools at a heavily discounted price, though it also made good business sense to have those amenities close to his family-friendly neighborhoods. Coworkers and friends always discuss how he was driven by providing stable jobs and quality homes to a wide range of families, rather than money. Every newspaper article about Ervin in the early 1960s mentions that he wears knit sports shirts to work and sweaters to restaurants – rather sacrilegious attire for a millionaire when coats and ties were de rigueur.
Ervin’s desire to build a happier place for all extended into racial issues as well. His company was building in the South during a very turbulent time where African Americans were treated like second class citizens and denied basic rights, even when it came to housing. In 1962, President Kennedy decreed that all contractors who intended to use federal funds to build houses must sign an anti- discrimination pledge. This new objective caused quite a stir in the industry. When Ervin, who was one of the preeminent builders in the South, was interviewed about the pledge, he claimed it would have no impact on his business. In 1964, a newspaper article announced a new “Negro housing development” to be built north of Charlotte; the developer and builder was the Ervin Company. Some residents of the city, especially those near the proposed neighborhood, reacted very negatively to this proposed plan. As described in a newspaper article about the event, ten “white housewives” planned on picketing the Ervin Construction Company offices in protest. Their argument was that the quality of homes built by the company would attract a less than desirable type of homeowner that would reduce their property values, though the newspaper article from 1964 seemed skeptical of their reasons.
The Ervin Company would continue to be a controversial developer entangled in racial disputes until the company folded in the mid-1970s. The company faced racial discrimination lawsuits for its Tega Cay development in South Carolina. Charges alleged that potential African American homebuyers were turned away, and that the company refused to hire African Americans to work in the resort-style development. On August 26, 1971, a dedicated citizen of the Hickory Grove neighborhood in Charlotte brought some fellow residents and friends to the Ervin Building to picket against the company’s involvement with the city on a potential federally subsidized apartment building. Her claims were unsubstantiated, but the Tega Cay lawsuit had significantly marred the company’s reputation.
The Ervin Legacy
After 20 years in the business, Ervin had created a housing empire in the Charlotte area and other parts of the Carolinas, and he continued to plan for even greater expansion. In 1968, it was estimated that the Ervin Company had built 10,000 single family dwellings, 2,000 apartment units, and about 2 million square feet of retail and warehouse space in the greater Charlotte area. This totaled about $300 million. He also owned six utility companies serving around 10,000 Charlotte residents, 3,000 acres of raw land in Charlotte, and 5,000 acres of raw land in the surrounding areas. Between his other offices – Gastonia, Winston-Salem, High Point, Spartanburg, and Charleston – Ervin estimates they had built about 2,000 homes, 1,000 apartments, and 200,000 square feet of retail commercial space, all totaling about $75 million. Because of the large expansion of his company, Ervin rebranded his company at this time as Ervin Industries, Inc., bringing an estimated “25 or so corporations” under a new “corporate umbrella.”
Ervin continued to see measurable success of his company up to 1969. That year his company was considered one of the top community planners in a contest run by the General Electric Company (GE). The three winning projects – Providence Square, Idlewood Farms, and Olde Providence – were featured in Disneyland in Anaheim at the Carousel of Progress. Ervin had planned the Ervin Building around many of the ideas Walt Disney had for the future, so this tied his success and passions together. Disney had designed the Carousel of Progress and the Progress City display for GE in 1964 as a way of representing Disney’s vision for the future.
By 1970, the Ervin Company was struggling to maintain the growth they had seen in previous years. The company was sold to the American Cyanamid Corporation in 1970. In the original announcement for the purchase on August 4, 1970, it was announced that the Ervin Company would become a wholly owned subsidiary of Cyanamid with Charles Ervin continuing to sit on their board of directors. He was also named as president of the newly formed Cyanamid Realty Corporation, adding his years of expertise in the Southeast housing market to the already successful Cyanamid. This marked a clear stepping-away by Ervin from the company he had built. Cyanamid invested $6 million in cash into the Ervin Company for them to expand within the first few months of ownership into Florida, Washington-Baltimore, Virginia, and Stone Mountain, Georgia. The Ervin Company predicted over triple in sale numbers in their first year under Cyanamid compared to the year before. The company did see some success during those years, most specifically through their Raintree and Tega Cay developments. Tega Cay, now a town in South Carolina, started as joint ventures between Crescent Land & Timber, a wholly owned subsidiary of the Duke Power Co., and the Ervin Company. Duke Power had acquired a considerable amount of land in the Carolinas while expanding their operation. The land was profitable, and Duke Power jumped on the opportunity to develop it. Crescent Land & Timber undertook many joint ventures with Ervin Co. in 1970, including the transfer of two Ervin Company-owned apartment complexes to a company owned by both parties.
Tega Cay was one of the Ervin Company’s last big development pushes before the company folded. Located on Lake Wylie (where Ervin’s family had had a vacation house for many years), the developers chose a Polynesian theme for the amenities at resort community. Like Raintree, Tega Cay included a golf course and other amenities including swimming pools and a clubhouse. This was a clearly different approach to the family-centered neighborhoods Ervin had planned around Charlotte. The Ervin Company sold their stake in Tega Cay when the company folded for $14 million.
Unfortunately, the Ervin Company could not fulfill their promises to Cyanamid. Cyanamid dissolved the company in 1974 and all assets were quickly liquidated. The Ervin Company’s quick demise after being sold is only one more testament to Charles Ervin’s strong leadership and business acumen. After Ervin sold his company in 1970, the Ervin Building changed hands and was occupied by many different tenants who regularly changed the interior floor plan to suit their needs as was Ervin’s hope. The building was most recently known as the Vernadore Building, after the real estate company who owned the structure and had offices on the fourth and fifth floor. The large number of LGBTQ businesses who occupied the other floors led the building to be referred to as “Queer Tower.”
While Ervin had great visions for the eastern portion of Charlotte, the growth did not follow Ervin as much as he had hoped. The area never became an alternate city center and to this day, there is only one other tall building like the Ervin Building. Yet the Ervin Building still stands as a testament to the hopes and dreams not only of a man who built one of the largest construction companies in the Southeast, but also of a city that was growing and expanding. Ervin’s neighborhoods still dot the outer edges of Charlotte, creating a ring of small 1950s and 1960s developments that have stood the test of time (see maps at end of document for locations of some of Ervin’s developments). Ervin’s vision for a building that could adapt and change with its tenants and bring together people still holds true today, even as our suburbs, cities, and commercial centers change and adapt further. Though he passed away in 2006, Ervin’s legacy is evident in the many different neighborhoods he built in the Charlotte area and beyond. A large majority of the houses he constructed still stand today and have become home to the new generations of Charlotteans searching for the same ideals Ervin was providing in the 1950s and 1960s: homeownership of a quality house at a reasonable price. The Ervin Building provides a visible, permanent monument to the sprawling Charlotte neighborhoods built by Charles Ervin.
Until next week!
"Ervin Building," prepared by MacRostie Historic Advisors, LLC in partnership with Guest (published by the Charlotte Historic Landmarks Association).
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